Today we are very excited to have a guest post from one of Canada’s new Banting Fellows, who has asked to remain anonymous. You may be surprised to read this person’s assessment of Canada’s “Cadillac” award for postdocs. The most challenging question, from our perspective, that our blogger raises is: Are universities buying the fellowships?
One year ago, the Government of Canada launched the Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship to much fanfare. The program aims to “attract and retain” top-tier international talent and position award holders “for success as research leaders of tomorrow.” Despite some initial reviews, there has been little evaluation of how the scheme is faring. My aim here is to provide my own perspective as a life scientist holding a Banting at one of the largest universities in Canada.
The goals of the Banting fellowship are certainly laudable. Foremost, they aim to provide early career scientists with the flexibility and support to establish an independent research career. The trouble with the awards, however, is that they only last for two years. This prevents award holders from establishing a presence as a leader because they cannot apply for research grants from the tri-councils on a two-year, non-faculty position, nor supervise graduate students, because they’ll be out of a job before the students finish! Ultimately, I think the lofty ambitions of the program will go unrealized because of this limited tenure.
Other countries, such as Britain and Germany, have similar mechanisms to recruit the world’s top postdoctoral talent. The difference is that they recognize that becoming a research “leader” means just that, the ability to lead a group of researchers in developing a comprehensive body of work. Top programs in these countries that Canada should be emulating include the Royal Society University Research Fellowships, Advanced Fellowships offered by the UK research councils and charities, and Germany’s Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.
Obviously, offering longer fellowships comes at a cost. One option would be for the tri-councils to halve the number of Bantings and increase the funding to four years. This could be achieved by reducing the value of the award. Personally, I care very little about my salary, and I imagine that other researchers that are passionate about their work, place monetary gain well beneath their work. I would happily be paid half of my current salary if my Banting lasted four years, allowed me to apply for a CIHR Operating Grant or NSERC Discovery grant, and supervise graduate students. A second option would be to create new, longer-term fund schemes such as by re-allocating fund from other budgets. Such actions would put serious support behind new investigators in Canada and parallel many of the international funding programs mentioned above, which have both short- and long-term fellowships for candidates of differing experience and achievement.
My second gripe with the Banting fellowships is their definition of “institutional support.” This is very vague on the program website, so what exactly does (or could) it entail? No doubt anecdotal, but I am compelled to recount a tale of a friend of mine who is exceptionally successful in his field (physical sciences) and has worked at several of the top institutions in the world. You would expect him to be a prime candidate for a Banting and indeed, he applied for a Banting at one of the best universities in Canada. But because this university has an excellent reputation, it offered him no additional financial support. They felt that their reputation was sufficient reason for him to come to their institution, in addition to the collaborators that were there. In the end, he did not receive a Banting, despite being highly qualified with a strong research proposal.
By contrast, my own university has been exceptionally generous with their financial commitment to my research, demonstrating strong support to the Banting committee. Ironically, despite my host institution’s support, there are few staff members that I can engage with, especially when compared to my colleague’s choice of research environment. While this is a sample size of two, I cannot help but feel suspicious that some universities may be using the offer of “institutional support” to, in effect, “buy” fellowships to raise their profile. My host university has provided no benefits aside from research money, yet I would happily trade some cash for the potential to supervise graduate students.
To summarize, while I’m certainly better off that I’ve held a Banting, I can’t see how they are any different from a standard PDF. At my university, it makes no difference whatsoever that I hold the award – all post-docs are equally treated as “non-employees”! It seems to me that all the Government of Canada has done by creating this program is generated two salary tiers for PDFs, without additional benefits. To me, this seems like a huge misdirection of very limited resources by a government so preoccupied with fiscal accountability. The government needs to extend the fellowship duration and work with universities to deliver tangible research benefits if the program is to achieve its purpose and positively contribute to Canada’s growth.